I'm Not White, I'm Jack Harlow!
The story of 'Jackman' and the politics behind white rappers.
Welcome to 43rd issue of Backseat Freestyle. This is my weekly hip-hop newsletter I send out every Friday (look at me, back in your inbox! I know, I know…a Wednesday) focusing on one big thing that happened over the past seven days. I also include links (15-25 of them) to what I’ve been listening to, reading and watching. You can check out the archive, here, and read more about me, here. [In lieu of the shuttering of MTV News, over on IG I shared my MTV News origin story; considering it a bonus about me.] If you’re already a BF subscriber, thank you for your continued support. If you’re arriving to this issue by way of a forward, LinkedIn or social media, please subscribe below. And please share this newsletter with your circle so that they can enjoy it, too; personal referrals are my best path to long-term growth. With that said, let’s get into it….
This is what’s driving hip-hop this week….
JACK HARLOW CAN RAP. And he’s charismatic. Those are perhaps the two most important ingredients toward the path to stardom. The third? Opportunity, which often manifests itself as a matter of timing. So during the throws of the pandemic year, particularly in late 2020 and early 2021, when Drake and Kendrick were on the sideline (and J.Cole was cooking up an album in silence), Team Harlow likely thought: Talent? Check. Charisma. Check. Now? Why not? Coming off of a heater in “WHATS POPPIN” and a star-making guest spot on Lil Nas X’s “Industry Baby,” Harlow was positioned as being on the rise toward the throne. Credit Rolling Stone on the assist. It was ambitious. It was audacious. It was… also very much in line with most rapper’s desires. But Jack isn’t most rappers, he has a noticeable lack of melanin. There’s never been a white rapper who’s gunned for the top spot. Eminem, of course, had the chops to do it, but he was deferential. G-Eazy is similarly deferential and pop adjacent. MGK and Yellowwolf pulled out guitars. Russ went indie after “Best On Earth” popped. And Mac Miller’s tragic death leaves us a what if; though he seemed to be heading down the critical darling route before his passing. Jack, however, is really going for it, and in the George Floyd/Black Lives Matter era where it’ll take more than a Macklemore-like text to atone for white privilege.
Respect my mind or die from lead shower.
LATE LAST MONTH, JACK HARLOW ANNOUNCED a short release window for his third album, Jackman, which would be arriving just two days later on April 28th. The only things we knew about the project was it was titled for his birth name and that the cover was decidedly no frills compared to the pseudo statements his first two major label LPs attempted to project. It seemed to be a reset from his previous album, Come Home the Kids Miss You. (More on that in a minute.)
On that last album, Jack Harlow pulled inspiration from Drake and culled together a full length listen that showcased clever rhymes pillowcased inside of polished production to lure the opposite sex into pressing play. It featured blockbuster videos for “Churchill Downs” and “First Class” and collaborations with Pharrell and Justin Timberlake. It was a solid album; I thought it showed growth from his debut, Thats What They All Say.
I said as much on Twitter, at the time.
Solid, however, isn’t what that album was supposed to be.
There was the aforementioned Rolling Stone cover as a part of a splashy media rollout, which also included “SNL” hosting and performance duties, a personalized KFC meal, a world tour announcement and GQ and Teen Vogue covers.
The idea was for Jack to blow up.
And why wouldn’t he? He put in time to hone his craft, aligned himself with DJ Drama and Generation Now, worked his way up with pal Druski and in “WHATS POPPIN” he had a certified banger (worth more currency in hip-hop than a hit, btw). Plus, when the spotlight was on him, he delivered. As a collaborator on Lil Nas X’s “Industry Baby,” Jack spit a scorching guest verse, he looked like a star in the video and he was both cheeky and genuine in his support of his fellow upstart. It was only a matter of time.
Now, was it his time last year? I didn’t think so. But I don’t begrudge him for going for it.
The most polarizing [thing] was the image of him being carried by Black men over muddy ground while he was suited up at the Kentucky Derby.
The thing about reaching out for that rung and missing it…well, you fall to the ground. There was some backlash, some warranted but mostly unwarranted. The most polarizing was the image of him being carried by Black men over muddy ground while he was suited up at the Kentucky Derby. My take: he was also filming a music video that day, he had to be fresh and who he rolls with is who he rolls with.
But who Jack aligns himself with is different from other white rappers. It’s worth noting. He doesn’t idolize Eminem; Drake is who he looks up to. Yung Miami and Anitta were leads in his videos. He took the City Girls on tour with him. He protested the killing of Breonna Taylor.
He’s not trying to be anything other than white, though. It’s worth noting. He’s also aligned himself with Tyler Herro, his only rumored celebrity dalliance is with Dua Lipa and he’s aware of his privilege.
On Jackman, he spends the first two (of only 10 tracks) breaking it down. On track one, “Common Ground,” he pulls a sleight of hand and instead of making a plea for us to all get along, he calmly excoriates posers who pull from Black culture without taking the time to understand its origins. He ends it by putting the emphasis on those young white kids being the reason why “common ground ain’t that common.”
Harlow is looking to move past his whiteness by going through his whiteness.
Macklemore, however, he’s not. He’s not apologizing. The subsequent offering, “They Don’t Love It,” finds Harlow putting his bonafides to the forefront, along with his devotion to the culture. MGK responded to this track but that was more the case of a hit dog hollering. Here, Harlow is making his case that he does understand the culture, his place in it and he’s using the song to dispel any notion that he resembles who he was rapping about in the previous track. Additionally, he’s making the case that his love of hip-hop and his genuine participation means he should go for it because to not do so would be more disrespectful than anything else, in his eyes.
Harlow is looking to move past his whiteness by going through his whiteness. To me, his biggest stumble wasn’t the Derby picture, but rather when he used his whiteness as a crutch for the lack of depth in his writing. He posited that a Black rapper could simply use gun metaphors to transition from bar to bar in a way he couldn’t; he instead had to think harder to get from place to place in his songs.
Regardless of his intention, it came off dismissive of Black artists and it positioned him like the kids he was rapping about in “Common Ground.”
What made Eminem so unique (and thrilling) is that he has the rhyming grit of hip-hop’s most talented MCs, but his story was one that was white and blue collar. It wasn’t relatable to folks in the same way that Jay-Z or Nas’ songs were to some, but to others it was revelatory for speaking to a generation of fans who adored hip-hop but didn’t see themselves in it (which, of course, was by design; for us by us.) His success helped hip-hop grow.
It’s a much different time these days and white rappers who can really rap aren’t the novelty they once were. On Jackman, Jack Harlow isn’t apologizing for who he is, but he’s also not ignoring it anymore either. It’s been a reset for him, in as much that he’s clearly gifted, has a knack for hits and bangers, but was limited on piecing together a narrative in rhyme to lift his own lore in the same way Kendrick, Drake, Cole, Nas, Big, Wayne and all the greats have. What could be deemed a disappointing sophomore effort wasn’t for a lack of demand. His supply was short. Yes, he’s white, but he’s in position to become a household name now because he’s not shying away from the totality of his story anymore, and what it means for him and to others.
Music, news, reads, podcasts and videos that I’m checking for this week.
The feature listen, for me, this week is Destroy Lonely’s If Looks Could Kill. Lone is an interesting figure, both for being the son of DTP’s I-20 and his affiliation with Playboi Carti’s Opium collective. He’s Soundcloud kid but also nepo baby, which gives his steez a dose of depth that differs from the usual sad boy fare. “which one” and “goin up” are early favs. [Listen] Related: He also released a short film to go with his project, that’s long on bad acting, but charming in its horror-ish story. [Watch]
Another interesting figure is IDK, who hasn’t found a room he can’t work. I first met IDK when I was at Revolt and he charmed our staff by breaking down his Trap oeuvre. He’s eloquent in relaying his vision and he puts good purpose in his work, though he’s not as sleight of hand yet that you can’t see his inspiration and desired destination in each track. I really enjoyed his new album, F65, even though I could hear the blueprint in each song. There’s a polish that’s coming to him soon. [Listen]
Conway The Machine is the most muscular rhymer of the Griselda triumvirate and that earns him props for his way with words, but he lacks the zany creativity of Westside Gunn or the regretful consciousness of Benny The Butcher. Still, despite some limitations, he has a perspective that many in his lot (Lloyd Banks, for one) lack. Won’t He Do It isn’t Griselda cannon, but it's an evocative listen of a sharp MC who respects his craft. [Listen]
This is my favorite rapper right now: Armani White. He has personality for days, but he’s proving to be more than that with each release. HIs Road to CASABLANCO is another brick toward the foundation of a future star. [Listen]
Sleezy World Go’s “Off The Court” is a menacing number that shows the young rapper flashing some teeth. The production recycles some familiar sounds, but SWG’s name-checking hook (Ja Morant) plus Polo G and Einer Bankz guest spots give this one good replay value. [Listen]
There’s a few veteran rappers that I enjoy tapping in with the youngsters, namely frenemies Jeezy and Gucci Mane. The latter taps Roddy Ricch and Nardo Wick for “Pissy,” a ode to excess with a fuck you attitude to it. [Listen]
Nipsey Hussle killer sentenced. [Info]
Don C. named Mitchell & Ness creative director [Info]
Ebonie Ward ventures out with her own management firm. [Info]
Ice Spice signs to Nicki? [Info] Related: Our latest The RapCaviar Podcast featured a manager's roundtable, which included Ice’s manager. They all dropped some good game. [Listen]
I wrote about AI earlier this year and didn’t think it’d move as fast as it has; to catch you up if you’re late, read all about the aftershock of the fake Drake/The Weekend song. [Info]
Yung Miami covers The Cut [Read]
My brother Guy Routte is making museum exhibitions fly with Pharoahe Monch, Rich Medina and more. [Read]
The mysterious Mach Hommy gets revealing with The Fader [Read]
Pras Michel was found guilty recently in a foreign influence scheme, but if you only saw that headline then you should go back and read what got him where he is now. The Feds rolled him, it seems, because they couldn’t get their real target. This is like a Netflix espionage series. [Read] [Read]
Angie Martinez? Bonsu Thompson? Biggie? Sign me up. Filmed over 5 nights, this pod tells the story of The Notorious B.I.G. 's Life After Death album with more new nuggets than a Wendy’s 6 piece. [Listen]
Louder Than A Riot’s season 2 has raised its bar from the previous season. Similarly ambitious to the first go round (and with missteps as a result), this year the pod has refined its focus so when they’re on it’s very worthy of pressing play, like this episode on ILoveMakonnen and masculinity. [Listen]
Drill needs more stars to succeed if the subgenre is gonna break to become a larger movement outside of the city. In the wake of Pop Smoke’s death, Fivio Foreign went for his and delivered B.I.B.L.E., one of last year’s best albums. Next up is DD Osama, who’s debut, Here 2 Stay, drops next week; “Who I Am” and its video is a good signal the youngster is trying to level up. [Watch]
Lil Baby is living like a Drake Instagram post in “Go Hard.” [Watch]
NBA YoungBoy said he’d be turning a corner to show more growth in his music, but lately he’s taken a U-turn…and sometimes the journey isn’t a straight road and that’s OK. His Nicki collab is A1 and his latest, “Big Truck, is too. Nice video shot at his Utah home. [Watch]
Anuel AA moves like an American rapper and that’s earned him a lot of props and photo ops with them. Combined with his romance with ex Karol G and it seemed like the Puerto Rican rapper was coasting on clout. But lately, he’s found his pocket; his solo stuff has been shorter and punchier and his collabs, like “Mejor Que Yo” with DJ Luian and the Mambo Kingz are packing a punch. [Watch]
Lil Yachty sure moved on from that alternative project pretty quickly. I didn’t give that much of a listen, from the one listen it seemed solid. But the three-pack of songs he put out after it, which includes “drive ME crazy!” and “Strike (Holster)” are certified summer offerings. Here’s the visual for the latter. [Watch]
Speaking of alternative, PBS explores when hip-hop is tagged with that title. [Watch]
Internet Money is the latest guest on Mass Appeal’s Rhythm Roulette; the collective is somehow underrated and era defining at the same time. [Watch]
A preview of the Dilla doc produced by The New York Times; the Questlove/Dan Charnas doc is still in the works. [Watch]
Backseat Freestyle is written and produced by me, Jayson Rodriguez, for Smarty Art. If you have any comments, feedback or questions, feel free to email me: [email protected] If you would like to discuss sponsoring an issue of the newsletter, contact: [email protected] and check out the rates, here. And follow me elsewhere:
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